The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Part Four

This is Part Four of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey, the 2011 Trading 8s “Journalist of the Year”.

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4. “The Gates of Foxconn”
by Mike Daisey

Shenzhen is a city without history.

The people who live there will tell you that, because thirty-one years ago, Shenzhen was a fishing village. They had little reed huts, little reed walkways between the huts, the men would fish into the late afternoon—I hear it was lovely. Today, Shenzhen is a city of fourteen million people. It is larger than New York City, it is the third largest city in all of China, and it is the place where almost all of your shit comes from.

And the most amazing thing is, almost no one in America knows its name.

Isn’t that remarkable?

That there’s a place where almost all of our shit comes from and no one knows its fucking name?

I mean, we think we do know where our shit comes from—we think our shit comes from China.

Right? In kind of a generalized way? “China.”

But it doesn’t come from “China”—it comes from Shenzhen. It’s a city, it’s a place, and I am there, in an elevator, going down to the lobby of my hotel to meet with my translator, Cathy.

Cathy is fascinating: she’s very small, and she has sort of rounded shoulders, and she has these glasses that are way too big for her face so they keep sliding down and she has to push them up assiduously. She also has this sort of unnerving habit that when she is listening to you, she leans forward…indeterminately. So you get the feeling that if you were to talk to her for long enough, she would actually fall into your chest, and you’d have to pick her back up again.

We go outside and get into a taxi and begin to drive through the streets of downtown Shenzhen.

Shenzhen looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself. LEDs, neon, and fifteen-story-high video walls covered in shitty Chinese advertising: it’s everything they promised us the future would be.

We get out to the edge of the core of Shenzhen and we come to the gates. Because thirty- one years ago, when Deng Xiaoping carved this area off from the rest of China with a big red pen, he said, “This will be the Special Economic Zone,” and he made a deal with the corporations, he said, “Listen, use our people, do whatever you want to our people, just give us a modern China.” And the corporations took that deal and they squeezed and they squeezed and what they got is the Shenzhen we find today.

And on the other side of the gates it’s the factory zone and WHOO! —it’s like going from the Eloi to the Morlocks: everything changes. I’ve never seen anything like it. Everything is under construction. Every road has a bypass, every bypass has a bypass—it’s bypasses all the way down. I swear to God, I actually see buildings being built up on one side as they’re being torn down on the other.

And we pull onto an elevated expressway, and we begin to drive under a silver poisoned sky, because the air in Shenzhen…it’s not good in Hong Kong, but when you get to Shenzhen, you can actually feel it. Like a booted foot pressing down on your chest. But it’s amazing, what human beings will get used to, isn’t it?

Because after just a few days

<<takes a deep breath>>

you hardly even notice it at all.

And as we’re driving, we’re passing by arcology after arcology, these immense buildings that are so large they are redefining my sense of scale moment by moment, and then our taxi driver takes an exit ramp, and he stops.

Because the exit ramp stops. In mid-air.

There’s some rebar sticking out…and an eighty-five foot drop to the ground.

The only sign that the exit ramp ends is a single, solitary, orange cone.

It’s sitting there, as if to say,

“We’re busy…? Be alert…?”

We back back onto the expressway and begin to drive again, and then Cathy turns to me, pushes up her glasses, and says, “Excuse me, but I do not think this is going to work.”

And I hasten to assure her that it will work, but I’m talking out of my ass because I don’t know that it’s going to work; in fact, I have a lot of evidence that this is not going to work. In fact, all the journalists I have talked to in Hong Kong, when I tell them about my plan, you can actually see them wrestling with just how to express to me just how totally fucked my plan is.

My plan is this: We are in a taxi right now, in the factory zone, we are driving on our way to Foxconn.

Foxconn is the biggest company you’ve never heard of. Foxconn makes almost fifty percent of all the electronics in the world. So if you’re ever wondering how much of your shit comes from Foxconn, just take all the electronics you have in your house, put them together in a big pile, cut them all in half: that’s Foxconn.

And at this plant, they make all kinds of things, including MacBook Pros and iPhones and iPads, and so my plan is to take this taxi to the main gates, and then I’m going to get out of the taxi with my translator, and then my plan is to stand at the main gates and talk to anybody who wants to talk to me.

And when I tell journalists in Hong Kong about this plan, they say,

“That’s…different. That’s not really how we usually do things in China…ah…that’s really a bad idea—”

But I don’t know what the fuck else to do. I have been trying to do things “the right way,” I can’t get anywhere. I’ve been working with a fixer for the BBC—all the doors are closed.

And you reach a certain point when you realize you may need to obey your natural inclinations.

And at the end of the day, I am large,

I am American,

and I am wearing a fucking Hawaiian shirt.

And we are going to the main gates.

But I have to say, when we get there…my resolve wavers.

Because the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen is enormous. The Foxconn plant in Shenzhen has four-hundred-and-thirty-thousand workers.

That can be a difficult number to conceptualize. I find it’s useful to instead think about how there are twenty-five cafeterias at the plant and you just have to understand that some of these cafeterias seat thousands of people.

So now you just need to visualize a cafeteria that seats thousands and thousands of people.

I’ll wait.

No, really. I’ll wait.

You can do it. Try visualizing a cafeteria from your youth—maybe one from grade school, maybe one you went to hundreds and hundreds of times against your will, that would be appropriate. Summon it up in your mind.

Ok. Now. Hold it in your mind.

What I want you to do now is push the walls outward…start cloning the space like a Photoshop tool, over and over and over until it holds thousands of people.

Now, imagine twenty five rooms, all that size, all next to each other.

And now imagine them always full—because they always are. If you’re late from your shift, even a little bit, you aren’t getting any dinner.

And I get to the main gates, and I get out of the taxi with my translator, and the first thing I see at the gates are the guards.

And the guards look pissed. They look really pissed.

And they are carrying guns.

And I look back at the taxi which is now pulling away…and I’m involuntarily reminded of this Google News alert that popped into my inbox a few weeks earlier about an Reuters photographer who was taking pictures not at the Foxconn plant but near the Foxconn plant and Foxconn security went out, scooped him up, and beat him before releasing him.

I hope they’re in a better mood today.

And I look up past the gates and the guards, I look up at the buildings, these immense buildings, they are so enormous, and along the edges of each enormous building are the nets.

Because right at the time that I am making this visit, there’s been an epidemic of suicides at the Foxconn plant.

Day after day, week after week, worker after worker is climbing all the way up to the tops of these enormous buildings and then throwing themselves off, killing themselves in a brutal and public manner, not thinking very much about just how bad this makes Foxconn look.

Foxconn’s response to month after month of suicides has been to put up these nets.

<<silence>>

I think it’s Foxconn’s version of corporate responsibility.

It’s shift change, and the workers are coming out of the plant, and I’m standing there under the hot monsoon sun in the gaze of the guards. I feel ridiculous. I look absurd in this landscape—I mean, I wouldn’t talk to me!

And Cathy surprises me—she’s a spitfire, who knew?—she runs right over to the very first worker, grabs them by the arm, drags them over to us, we start talking…and in short order, we cannot keep up.

First, there’s one worker waiting, then there’s two, then there’s three, and before long the guards are like,

“mrrrrrrr??? RRRRRR,”

and we move further and further away from the plant, but the line just gets longer and longer—everyone wants to talk! We start taking them three or four at a time—we still can’t keep up. Everyone wants to talk. It’s like they were coming to work every day, thinking,

“You know what’d be great? It’d be so great if somebody who uses all this crap we make, all day long, it’d be so great if one of those people came and asked us what is going on. Because we would have stories for them.”

And I’m just ad-hoc-ing questions, I’m asking the questions you would expect: “What village in China are you from? How long have you been working at Foxconn? What do you do at the plant? How do you find your job? What would you change at Foxconn if you could change anything?”

That last question always gets them. They always react like a bee has flown into their faces and then they say something to Cathy and Cathy says, “He says he never thought of that before.” Every time. Every time.

And the stories are fascinating. I talk to one young woman who works on the iPhone line. She cleans the screens of iPhones by hand, in these huge racks, thousands and thousands of them every day, and she shows me how she does it, and I show her my iPhone and I hand her my iPhone—I take a picture of her holding my iPhone—and I say to her, “We’ll never know, you may have cleaned the screen of this iPhone when it came by you on the line, we’ll never know.” And, quick as a whip, she takes my phone and she rubs it against her pants and then she says, “There, I’ve cleaned it a second time.”

And I say to her, “You seem kind of young—how old are you?”

And she says, “I’m thirteen.”

And I say, “Thirteen. That’s young. Is it hard to get work at Foxconn when you’re…?”

She says, “Oh no,” and her friends all agree, it’s not that hard. There are inspections, but Foxconn always knows when there’s going to be an inspection, so what they do then—you’re going to love this—they don’t even check ages then, they just pull everyone from the affected line and then they put the oldest workers they have on that line.

You’d think someone would notice this, you know? You’d think someone would say, “My god, you guys are amazing! I can’t believe you keep up with our BRUTAL iPhone quotas and your median age is…ahhhh…74! Chinese productivity, am I right? We gotta get some of you guys back home to Cupertino!”

I am telling you that I do not speak Mandarin, I do not speak Cantonese, I have only a passing familiarity with Chinese culture and to call what I have a passing familiarity is an insult to Chinese culture—I don’t know fuck-all about Chinese culture.

But I do know that in my first two hours of my first day at that gate,

I met workers who were fourteen years old,

I met workers who were thirteen years old,

I met workers who were twelve.

Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?

In a company obsessed with the details, with the aluminum being milled just so, with the glass being fitted perfectly into the case, do you really think it’s credible that they don’t know?

Or are they just doing what we’re all doing?

Do they just see what they want to see?

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Tomorrow: “Part Five: Change the World”